The Australian government has announced that it will fund the monitoring of National Broadband Network (NBN) speeds by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in an effort to increase the reliability of information provided to consumers, as well as improving competition among retail service providers (RSPs).
According to Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, the government will provide AU$7 million in funding over the next four years from July 1 to ensure the ACCC is able to implement the program.
"Performance information is a key factor for consumers when purchasing plans from a retail service provider. The government acknowledges that this will be vital as demand for data grows," Fifield said on Friday.
"By collecting and publishing information about the speed and reliability of broadband packages, consumers will be better placed to choose a plan that is right for them. It will also encourage retailers to compete on the quality of their broadband plans."
Under the program, the ACCC will install hardware on home connections across 4,000 premises connected to fixed-line NBN services, which includes fibre to the node, fibre to the premises, and hybrid fibre-coaxial. The device will collect real-time data on the typical speeds being experienced by users at various points throughout the day.
The ACCC will go to tender for a "qualified testing provider" to assist in the program, and seek volunteer households to have their speeds tested. It will then begin collecting the data in May, ahead of publishing it during the second half of 2017.
"This information will assist consumers in comparing and shopping around, and checking that they receive what they are paying for," ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said on Friday.
"The program will also allow the ACCC to determine if issues are being caused by the performance of the NBN, or by internet service providers (ISPs) not buying sufficient capacity. It will also provide ISPs with independent performance information from which to draw when making speed claims."
The opposition party welcomed the announcement, but argued that it "took too long" for the government to make the decision.
"By providing greater transparency, competition will be enhanced, and this is a good outcome for consumers, service providers, and NBN," Acting Shadow Communications Minister and Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said in a statement on Friday.
"The real question is: Why has this sensible step taken so long?"
The ACCC in February published a set of guidelines for ISPs to follow when advertising their broadband speeds in order to improve accuracy and prevent misleading claims -- with Fifield saying at the time that NBN was being unfairly criticised over misleading speed claims being made by RSPs.
Fifield told a party meeting at the time that RSPs had been promising unrealistic speeds across the NBN, and that these complaints should be "disaggregated" from those being made about NBN itself.
The ACCC in 2015 suggested monitoring broadband services in an effort to encourage competition between fixed-line broadband RSPs and aid consumers in making more informed purchasing decisions, with a discussion paper released in July 2016.
In its Broadband Speed Claims: Consultation outcomes report [PDF], the ACCC said the limited information currently provided to consumers is "raising consumer search costs, inhibiting competition, and feeding into an increasing level of consumer complaint".
The report said ISPs should provide accurate information on speeds consumers will likely see during peak times, without referencing wholesale network speeds or theoretical speeds and disclosing any mitigating factors. It also said information should be comparable between ISPs and diagnostic systems installed to resolve any issues.
During consultation last year, Australia's ISPs spoke out against the proposal, saying many of the factors affecting speed fluctuation are out of their control -- for instance, loss in quality caused by the type of technology being used, backhaul capacity, end-user hardware, Wi-Fi or cabling within a consumer's premises, and the performance of remote servers.